January 31, 2012

Our Companies are Global – Unions Must Act Globally


Early in November of 2011, the UFCW hosted a Global Meat Conference for meat packing workers from all over the world in Omaha, Nebraska. The two-day conference focused on the challenges workers face with the growth and consolidation of international meat companies like JBS and Cargill.

Thanks to consolidation and globalization, just a handful of companies dominate this billion dollar industry, and their power is growing year after year. That means challenges for workers who want to share in the success of their companies – whether those workers are in the U.S., Brazil, Japan or any other country.

Meat packing and food processing workers face the same basic challenges all over the world: inadequate crewing, disregard for ergonomics and safety, improper handling of hazardous materials like ammonia, downward pressure on wages and benefits, and a lack of dignity on the job.

Unfortunately, globalization and consolidation don’t necessarily raise standards for workers – the opposite is often true. For instance, at the Global Meat Conference, workers from all over the world met each other to speak and compare working conditions. They discovered that although they may share the same employer or parent company, their working conditions could be markedly different. For instance, workers from the U.S. or Australia may have strong union contracts, but workers in other countries are systematically denied bathroom breaks, or forced to work for weeks without a day off. They also learned that companies in every corner of the globe work to systematically deny workers who want a voice on the job from joining together with their co-workers in a union.

If companies like JBS, Tyson, and Cargill are global in their scope, our union must act globally, too. That is why UFCW members are communicating and coordinating with workers who belong to other meat packing unions around the world. We are routinely meeting; sharing information and developments; and coordinating on contract language that prevents exploitative or dangerous practices. These are effective ways to build the power that lets us negotiate better contracts and raise the working and living standards for everyone who works in this industry – both in the U.S. and abroad.

Dan Riesner is a UFCW steward from Local 222 in Iowa who works at the Gelita plant in Sergeant Bluff. He is tasked with the maceration of beef bones in acid, and assigned to the operation of a wash tank. The experience meeting workers in his industry from all over the globe really drove home to him how important it is for workers to band together, even across international borders.

“By sharing information with each other, union workers can learn about strategies and tactics that are effective in pressuring companies to come to the table and agree to fair, respectful working conditions,” Riesner said.

“It’s been a real eye-opener. Our strong union contracts mean we have it pretty good here in the U.S., comparatively, but we can’t take it for granted. If we don’t want consolidation and globalization to bite us – we need to kick up our efforts to organize and to stick together when we bargain.”